But flying under the radar of most observers is network transformation in another industry – Cable Access. Cable is applying many of the same concepts as telecom, but perhaps at a more rapid pace. The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) event this year signaled this trend is real and will hit the market soon.
The way we consume programming and other media content is changing. Not long ago, the TV was the focus of the living room, and we fought with our family members over which program to watch. Today, every mobile device with a screen is a personal TV, and everyone gets to watch what they want. The challenge for operators is that networks designed for a big screen TV don’t necessarily work well for multiple home users due to the need for transcoding, higher bandwidth, etc. And the bandwidth issue gets worse as we connect more IoT devices in the home.
Cable Operator Challenges
This lifestyle change is one of the factors pressuring cable operators to increase capacity. “They are seeing their network capacity requirements double approximately every 24 months to keep up with customer demand and the launch of new services,” according to Michael S. Kelsen, Senior Director and Chief Network Architect at Time Warner Cable.1
Historically, the cable industry hasn’t been nimble due to purpose-built network infrastructure, particularly cable modem termination systems (CMTSs) used to provide high speed data services, such as cable Internet or Voice over IP. This equipment, located in the headend (e.g., local cable TV offices), is typically custom and proprietary, so it can take a long time for a vendor to add new services on equipment that wasn’t designed to support them in the first place.
In 2012, we saw the Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) take off, which combines CMTS functions and edge quadrature amplitude modulation (edgeQAM). A CCAP reduces footprint and power consumption, and simplifies management and configuration, among other things. The downside of current CCAP implementations is the continued use of purpose-built components, so the same flexibility, scalability, and lead-time drawbacks I mentioned earlier with standalone CMTSs still remain.
But this is changing thanks to a network transformation in the cable industry. You can now find software-based CCAP solutions that use high-volume, industry-standard servers, much like virtualized evolved packet core (vEPC) equipment that’s available for telecom operators.
Software-based CCAP solutions offer many benefits, including:
- Economies of scale: The use of industry-standard, high-volume servers takes advantage of a highly cost-optimized market.
- Decoupling software from hardware: Hardware and software innovation can occur at different rates and across best-of-breed solutions.
- Lower barrier to entry: Specialized hardware development skills are no longer required, empowering a large ecosystem of applications/services innovators, and giving carriers the option to develop components in-house.
- Increased scalability: The elimination of proprietary, hardware subsystem boundaries allows scaling to occur in any direction and the scaling scheme to be more easily modified over time to meet changing demands.
- Greater flexibility: A server-based solution permits a suite of hosted services to be modified via software changes.
Software-based CCAP Solution
What does a software-based CCAP look like? On the left of the figure below we see an edge router connecting to the Internet and a video server (or other content source) residing in a data center – there’s no change in this part.
Example Software-Based CCAP Deployment
Source: Harmonic (www.harmonicinc.com)
In the middle of the figure, the software-based CCAP runs in a rack of servers in the cable operator’s data center. There is also a physical layer (PHY) shelf, which moves RF components out of the headend and into the field, decoupling the CCAP core from the physical layer.
For cable operators who want to increase bandwith to each subscriber by deploying a fiber-deep network, this architecture allows them to take full advantage of digital fiber benefits, such as signal transport, over much longer distances and more wavelengths.
The first order of business of any cable operator is to support their current services and customers. For that reason, a software-based CCAP solution must be able to co-exist with existing hardware-based CCAPs. This can be achieved with a hybrid approach that includes a software-based CMTS core running on high performance Intel® processor-based servers and a stand-alone PHY Shelf, which can be installed in an existing headend or hub.
Network transformation in the cable access market makes this an exciting time for both the cable industry and Intel. We’re moving to a software-based model that gives cable operators cost and time-to-market advantages through the use of industry-standard servers built with Intel processors. There will be more computing horsepower at the edge of the network, which will help increase service agility for operators and improve the quality of experience for consumers.
For more information about virtualization, visit: www.intel.com/network.
Follow Dan Rodriguez on Twitter: @drod2000.
1 Nick Cadwgan and Keith Lissak, “Transforming the Network Edge in the Cable Hub,” 2013, Preface.